Trouble in Macedonia?
by Stephen Schwartz
I met the then-president of Macedonia, Boris Trajkovski, only three months ago, at the end of November 2003. The occasion was perhaps an unexpected one for those who know Balkan politics: an official celebration of Albania's national holiday, known as Flag Day, observed on November 28. After all, Albanians and Slav Macedonians have not recently gotten along well.
The location was the Hotel Continental in Skopje, the Macedonian capital, which the Albanians call Shkup. We exchanged pleasantries and I wished him well, for everything I had heard about him was good -- something particularly unexpected in the Balkans.
Now he is dead, killed in a plane crash near Stolac in Bosnia-Hercegovina on February 26. I also know Stolac well -- once a virtual museum-city of Ottoman architecture, all of its mosques and Turkish-style houses were destroyed by Serbian and Croat forces during the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s. Stolac is a special spiritual place, where one of the greatest Bosnian rabbis, R. Moshe Danon, who died in the 19th century, is buried. Before the Holocaust, Rabbi Danon's sarcophagus was a place of common pilgrimage for Bosnian Jews.
A "macedonia" is an Italian name for a fruit salad, allegedly derived from the mixed-up nature of the country's ethnic profile. While other of the ex-Yugoslav states have suffered worse bloodshed since the collapse that began in 1991, Macedonia has doubtless undergone the most confusion. Because Greece objected to a country with a Slav majority bearing the name of the ancient state that produced Alexander the Great, the country officially bears the burdensome title of "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."
In addition, it has been extremely slow in extracting itself from the legacy of Tito's "self-managed socialism" -- it is the only ex-Yugoslav state to still bear the Communist Red Star on its shield. And although it was uniquely allowed by Slobodan Milosevic and his minions in Belgrade to secede from Yugoslavia peacefully in 1991, it ended up experiencing an ethnic war of its own, beginning a decade later, and pitting its Slav Macedonians, who make up a little more than 60 percent of the population, against its Albanian minority which numbers between 20 and 40 percent, depending on who does the counting. The religious profiles of the two countries exactly reverse one another: Slavs Macedonians are mainly Christian Orthodox with a Slavic-speaking Muslim minority, while the Albanians are mainly Muslim with a small Catholic community in their ranks. Macedonia also has a minor ethnic Turkish presence and a remarkably well-integrated Roma, or "Gypsy" community.
The brief, atrocious war of 2001 was caused by visible discrimination against the local Albanians. "Visible" is the correct term, for the disparity between the way the two communities live cannot be hidden. Skopje is divided by the river Vardar. The city was devastated by an earthquake in 1963, and on one bank, inhabited by the Slavs, the city was rebuilt. On the other bank, which houses exceptionally beautiful Ottoman mosques, the impressive warehouses used in centuries past by Christian merchants from Dubrovnik, and a vast marketplace known as Bitpazar, one finds an Albanian ghetto. Albanian grievances have nalso centered on inequities in the use of language in the legal system, education, and underrepresentation in local government.
On the other hand, paradoxically enough, Albanians are noticeably more entrepreneurial than Slav Macedonians. While the typical young Albanian dreams of opening an internet café, his Slav counterpart fantasizes about a job in the halls of the state bureaucracy. Indeed, before 2001, Bitpazar, however archaic it appeared, was a hive of business and entertainment. Since the war its neglect has increased.
Boris Trajkovski was one of the few positive figures in Slav Macedonian politics. He was, in his own way, as heterodox as his country: among other things, he was a Methodist minister. He was elected to the presidency in 1999, and reelected in 2002, as the standard-bearer of a party with a name even more cumbersome than that imposed on the country: the International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization/Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE). The VMRO-DPMNE has one of the most extraordinary histories of any ruling party in Europe; in the 1920s and 1930s it was a much-feared revolutionary group that engaged in open terrorism. Yet its original platform was for Macedonian independence rather than Slav nationalism, and even after 2001 Trajkovski found a way to achieve a truce with the restive Albanians, ruling for a time in coalition with the leading Albanian force, the Democratic Party of Albanians.
However, in 2003 the VMRO-DPMNE lost its mandate, and while Trajkovski remained in the presidency, real power came to be exercised by a much less-reliable politician, Branko Crvenkovski of the post-Communist Social Democratic Alliance. (New elections are expected this year).
Albanians, including in Macedonia, have few friends, and have lately been the object of blandishments by the Wahhabi sect originating in Saudi Arabia, which seeks to enlist them in a jihad against their neighbors. Trajkovski was trusted by Albanians, which made him an irreplaceable asset for a country prone to division. They will remember that he supported university education in the Albanian language, which most Slav Macedonian leaders firmly opposed, and that once, when he visited the Macedonian-Albanian capital of Tetovo, in Western Macedonia, he spoke to them in Albanian. At a time when the Balkans seemed to have fallen off the map of world trouble spots, the loss of a good man might unfortunately spell new disruption and even bloodshed.